NYU Abu Dhabi is an official venue for the MENA Special Olympics (March 2018) and the World Special Olympics Summer Games (March 2019)
The story of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Rosemary Kennedy, a person of determination, has inspired me since I was a fourth grader in 1964 and was enamored with the lives of the Kennedy family. Jackie Kennedy, with her perfect outfits and pillbox hats, inspired me to make a pillbox hat out of the bottom of a Chlorox bleach bottle. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a model of female strength and voice for me. She made things happen. She cared deeply for her sister and wanted her sister to have a full and rich life, not be shuttled in between institutions or hidden away.
The farm next to ours on the Eastern Shore of Maryland was home to the St. Benedictine School for Exceptional Children. As a child, I would walk across our cornfields to go to a summer festival for the children there. I volunteered to teach them to swim. At that time, I didn’t understand what Down Syndrome or Autism was, and no one explained it to me. I had a very positive connotation for the word “exceptional.” The children’s capacity for love was exceptional, and I loved them. The UAE words “people of determination” resonate very strongly to me.
People of determination include also those with physical or other challenges. My youngest brother Michael, at the age of 49, was diagnosed with ALS and over two years, lost the ability to move every muscle in his body except his eyes, due to this motor neuron disease. His mind remained as sharp as ever, but he became trapped in his own body. At one point, he still had a little mobility left in the big toe of his right foot. My oldest brother Henry built a foot mouse for him that allowed Michael to type so many emails with that toe that his outreach raised over $750,000 USD toward ALS research and support for ALS families.
Events like the Special Olympics bring people who might not ordinarily spend time together in their every days lives together around something pretty much everyone loves — sports, teamwork, competition, celebrating courage and achievement, feeling unified and connected. One of my happiest moments this year was wearing an NYUAD violet t-shirt that said “Unified We Walk. Unified We Live” while walking 1.5 kilometers in Umm Al Emarat Park with people of determination and other members of the Abu Dhabi and NYUAD community in solidarity with the Special Olympics. It just felt good. I thought a lot about Michael and how much I miss him.
To the athletes of the Special Olympics competition in Abu Dhabi, your determination makes me more determined. You are exceptionally inspiring. You open our minds and hearts through your presence in our community. You are winners, and we are very proud of you.